Masterpiece Theatre version
It’s a commonplace that directors like Woody Allen and Roman Polanski, still making films into their seventies, can no longer summon the command of expression that made them such icons thirty years ago. And while the Wood-man’s latest, Match Point, is rumored to break him from his rut—it premiered to great acclaim at Cannes earlier in the year but was curiously elided from both Toronto and the New York Film Festival—the knock against Polanski has been that his recent films have lacked personal conviction.
This is a strange accusation to make against the man who won Best Picture and Direction honors at the Academy Awards two years ago for The Pianist, a holocaust drama that by all accounts drew upon Polanski’s own flight from Poland as a child. But that film’s ‘Oscar’ feel at times seemed manufactured specifically to garner post-Schindler’s List top honors. Polanski’s new film, the umpteenth screen adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic Oliver Twist, proves what The Pianist only hinted at—that Roman Polanski is the world’s most talented paint-by-numbers artist.
If that sound likes damning the master with faint praise, consider this: Few directors have Polanski’s penchant for bleak humor, which makes him the ideal candidate for Dickens. Twist is, of course, the �r-tale of urchin tales, the story of a young ward of the state who is met with the grossest negligence at every turn throughout his childhood. Polanski opens with woodblock-etching titles that fade into the grimy slate-gray skies as the boy is trundled before a cartel of well-fed workhouse owners who ask him to testify to how well he’s been treated. Polanski shoots the scene with a cramped clutter of medium close-ups, as if to imply these unfeeling old men mean to eat the boy next. The sight of wraith-thin Oliver (played with un-showy precision by Barney Clark) is enough to put the audience on edge and still draw out a knowing laugh, setting the tone for the piece. All this just barely out of the opening credits.
Such economy serves Polanski well—be sure to arrive on time or risk missing the classic “Please, sir, can I have some more?” line—as he moves briskly through Oliver’s being sold to a chimney sweep and his eventual escape to London. Once there, Oliver takes up with a group of street kids to rival the slums of Rio and their don, a decrepit, scraggly old miser named Fagin (Ben Kingsley). Fagin treats Oliver with a decency so foreign to the boy it must make him feel like royalty, even if it’s still inadequate by any other measure. At this point, the film’s plot, which strives to remain faithful to the letter of Dickens’ 600-page yarn, begins in earnest. A wealthy nobleman takes Oliver in and sets about cleaning him up and giving him an education; this is met with no small degree of resentment by Fagin and his gang.
What makes Oliver’s story so appealing is its universal resonance. He has an opportunity to go straight, to make right for himself, but his past keeps catching up with him. Polanski deserves credit for never losing sight of the humanity in these characters, even the unfeeling ones with names like Sowerberry; his holocaust memories taught him that human kindness can be revealed even under the most dire conditions of survival. Polanski fans may find fault with this burnished Illustrated Classics edition, expecting a darker adaptation of the source material. If nothing else, Polanski’s Oliver Twist proves that old directors don’t die, they just go sepia-tone.